When Apolo Ohno commits to something, he goes all in. So it should come as no surprise that, when he stepped into Kailua Bay to participate in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, last month, America’s most decorated Winter Olympian showed the world that he’s more than just a speed skater.
Although this was his first long-distance race, Ohno managed to cross the finish line in 9:52, putting him in the top 15 percent of the 2,187 athletes taking on the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
Ohno, who won eight Olympic medals as a speed skater, will be among the featured athletes in NBC’s Ironman World Championship recap show, airing this Saturday. He was in New York for a preview of the show, trading in his triathlon kit for a Dolce & Gabbana sport coat and an Armani shirt.
Before he started on his “journey” to Kona, Ohno said he had a time goal in his head. “I had nothing to prove,” he said. “I was very happy with my accomplishments as an athlete. But if I was going to commit to something like an Ironman and I was going to go into somebody else’s domain, I wanted to make sure I gave it the proper effort and the respect it deserved. I was given a slot in Kona — I didn’t earn my slot — and some people said I ‘earned’ my slot from my performance as an Olympic athlete, but, technically, I never did an Ironman before. I knew there were going to be people who said, ‘This guy was given a slot — he’s a celebrity athlete. Is he going to take it seriously?” Ohno got his spot through sponsor Got Chocolate Milk?
So, Ohno turned to some of the guys he had befriended at Colorado’s Olympic Training Center during his skating days and asked, “What do I need to do, time-wise, to be validated as a triathlete?” Ohno continued, “My friend said, ‘You can go under 11:00.’ And I said, ‘What if I go under 10:00?’ And he laughed and said, ‘Number one, you’re not going to go under 10:00. You’re a natural sprinter. You’re all white fiber, a 40-second athlete. It’s going to take your body six months just to transition from a sprinter into an endurance athlete.’ I kind of logged that internally.”
But in the back of his mind, he set a goal to prove his friend wrong.
Helping him reach that goal was the reception he received from the other athletes in Kona. “There were so many athletes riding around me on the bike course, before the swim, on the run — guys who shared their stories with me about how many Ironmans they’d done. It was inspirational. And that validation from the triathlon community made me want to go harder.”
Although he grew up swimming, Ohno said that, after age 12, “I never got into the water unless it was on the ice.” He retired from racing four years ago; since then, his biggest athletic accomplishment has been winning “Dancing With the Stars.” Although he enjoyed his time on the show, Ohno said that, when comparing the two, Ironman wins, hands down. “DWTS was fantastic, but I’m an athlete, so I’m completely biased.”
Although dancing is a sport, too, the grueling, daylong Ironman competition is above and beyond anything he has ever done, even skating in the Olympics. “It was very different for a number of reasons. First, it was 9:52 minutes longer than my race,” he said with a laugh. “And the conditions — people had told me it was hot, windy, humid. But when I got off the plane, I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is what I’ve got to deal with? This is ridiculous. Whose idea is this?’ ”
But he persevered, swimming in one hour, cycling in 5:07 and running the marathon in 3:36. He said that, for him, the hardest part was the run. “It was really, really hard,” he said. “I wasn’t worried, but I was pretty fatigued at mile three. When I hit mile six, I felt a little better. When I hit mile 10, I stopped thinking about the mileage because it was eating me up. It was a very spiritual and emotional roller coaster throughout the entire marathon. I was running on empty; my GI tract was shut down. I was taking salt, but it wasn’t absorbing. I kept consuming, but I kept getting heavier and heavier. I was feeling horrible, so my mind had to go to a different place. For me, it was almost like an out-of-body experience.”
But like the other 2,000-plus competitors that day, he made it to the finish line. “There were so many challenges along the way. That’s why I think this race is so important — to showcase the strength of the human spirit, peoples’ willpower, dedication,” he said. “It’s an individual sport, but, collectively, everybody shares the same motto that Ironman stands for: Anything is possible.”
Now that Ohno has finished so strongly at the pinnacle of the triathlon sport, will he toe the starting line again someday?
“I would do another triathlon,” he said. “But would I do another full Ironman? I’m not sure, due to the time that’s required. You can’t just go through the motions. So, I’m going to break 9:00 next time, or I’m not going to do it at all.”